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Feb. 20, 2013 at 5:00 PM
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Snowstorm moves east from California

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- About 30 million people in 18 states are dealing with a storm watch or storm warning as snow and icy conditions move east from California.

A section of California 58 in Kern County was shut down Tuesday after a snowstorm trapped "hundreds of vehicles," the California Highway Department said.

Patrol Office Ed Smith told the Los Angeles Times the freeway in southern California is unsafe to drive after the arrival of the storm.

In northern California, a storm barreling out of the Gulf of Alaska brought tornadoes to Tehama and Glenn counties while Hamilton City was pelted with hail.

Residents took pictures and video of a tornado or funnel cloud that tore the roof off a storage building south of Gerber, the Chico (Calif.) Enterprise-Record reported Wednesday.

Meteorologist Johnnie Powell called the tornado "weak" and said its wind speeds ranged between 40 mph and 70 mph.

Flagstaff, Ariz., received three to five inches of snow by Wednesday morning, with five to seven inches more expected, the (Flagstaff) Arizona Daily Sun reported Wednesday.

A winter storm set to emerge from the Rockies Wednesday night will bring blizzard conditions to portions of the central Plains, Accuweather.com reported.

The storm will move through the Upper Midwest and bring snow, wind and cold to areas from California to Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

The biggest threat of heavy snow lies in Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri, with the possibility of whiteout conditions, CNN said Wednesday, adding two inches of snow, and freezing rain, are predicted for St. Louis, and that Chicago can expect four inches of snow.

Accumulating snow may reach as far north as Minneapolis with significant snow likely over southern Wisconsin, forecasters said.

Boehner: Obama lacks sequester 'courage'

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- House Speaker John Boehner said President Barack Obama lacks "courage" for warning about $85 billion in U.S. spending cuts but offering no viable alternative.

"Having first proposed and demanded the sequester, it would make sense that the president lead the effort to replace it," the Ohio Republican said in an op-ed piece published Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal.

"Unfortunately, he has put forth no detailed plan that can pass Congress, and the Senate -- controlled by his Democratic allies -- hasn't even voted on a solution, let alone passed one," Boehner's piece said.

"By contrast, House Republicans have twice passed plans to replace the sequester with common-sense cuts and reforms that protect national security," Boehner wrote.

The sequester is the Washington term for federal domestic and military spending cuts set to be automatically triggered in nine days and run through September unless Congress intervenes.

The cuts -- established as part of the 2011 deal to raise the federal debt limit -- represent a small slice of the government's annual $3.5 trillion budget and big-ticket programs such as Social Security and Medicare benefits are exempt from them.

The Daily Beast website reported Wednesday Boehner's office called on Republicans in July 2011 to agree to the sequester "to guarantee that Congress" take action on debt-reduction. The cuts were initially seen as so draconian Congress would enact a more targeted deficit-reduction deal to make comparable savings but no such deal has been reached.

Congress is on a winter recess and is to return next week, just days before the March 1 deadline -- which already was moved once, at the start of the year, to give Republicans and Democrats additional time to negotiate.

Reporter: Linking Hagel to Hamas 'bogus'

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- A New York reporter says conservatives' suspicion that defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel took money from "Friends of Hamas" grew out of "an obvious joke."

Conservative media and some members of Congress have demanded that Hagel, a Republican former U.S. senator from Nebraska, turn over records of speaking fees he may have received from organizations considered hostile to Israel. Hagel critics in Congress have suggested he is not sufficiently supportive of Israel.

Dan Friedman, writing in the New York Daily News, said Tuesday he asked a Republican aide on Capitol Hill Feb. 6 whether Hagel's Senate critics knew any specific information about speaking fees.

"In the process, I became part of an inadvertent demonstration of how quickly partisan agendas and the Internet can transform an obvious joke into a Washington talking point used by senators and presidential wannabes," Friedman wrote.

He said he asked the Capitol Hill aide whether Hagel had "given a speech to, say, the 'Junior League of Hezbollah, in France'? And: What about 'Friends of Hamas'?

"The names were so over-the-top, so linked to terrorism in the Middle East, that it was clear I was talking hypothetically and hyperbolically," Friedman wrote. "No one could take seriously the idea that organizations with those names existed -- let alone that a former senator would speak to them."

Friedman said the aide never got back to him with an answer, but the conservative website Breitbart.com published a story the following day citing Senate sources as saying "they have been informed one of the reasons that President Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, has not turned over requested documents on his sources of foreign funding is that one of the names listed is a group purportedly called 'Friends of Hamas.'"

Friedman noted that other right-wing blogs picked up the Breitbart item.

He said Ben Shapiro, who wrote the story for Breitbart.com, has since claimed his story "as reported is correct. Whether the information I was given by the source is correct I am not sure."

Obama calls for $50B 'to-do' spending plan

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- President Barack Obama Wednesday called for a $50 billion investment in U.S. infrastructure to create jobs and keep the country competitive.

With most of the focus in Washington on the half a trillion dollars in across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to become law on March 1, the White House said in a statement that the president is proposing a "fix-it-first" policy in which existing roads, bridges and airports would be repaired before new projects are developed.

"Repairs and maintenance of our existing roads, bridges and public transportation systems should take priority before we consider investing in new facilities," the statement said.

The proposal includes investing $40 billion in "the most urgent upgrades."

Funding would also be enhanced by tapping into state, city and local government budgets and private capital.

The White House said 70,000 bridges in the country have been labeled "structurally deficient." The spending plan would turn that around as the first $40 billion spent would "bring almost 80 percent of structurally deficient bridges up to date, getting Americans home faster and making the flow of commerce speedier," the statement said.

The president has made repeated proposals for more spending on infrastructure, but deficit-wary Republicans in Congress have consistently opposed the idea.

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